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Violence at Texas' youth lockups has risen since overhaul

GIDDINGS -- On a rainy February day, teenage boys, many of them heavily tattooed, walked in single-file lines across the Giddings State School campus. A few of them lifted black Windbreakers above their heads in a futile attempt to stay dry as they made their way from the cafeteria to their classrooms under the watchful eyes of corrections officers.

"I need release!" one boy shouted across the yard at James Smith, operations director for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, as he strolled by.

This day, the Giddings facility, one of Texas' six secure juvenile correctional institutions, was quiet. It was the type of scene that legislators were probably hoping for in 2007 when they initiated an overhaul of the juvenile justice system after reports of staff members physically and sexually abusing minors under their supervision.

But 10 years of data on physical and sexual assaults and pepper-spray incidents at youth correctional facilities statewide indicates that this serene atmosphere is often disrupted by violence among the youths.

Overall, the rate of confirmed youth-on-youth assaults has more than tripled at the secure juvenile offender facilities statewide in the five years since lawmakers approved those reforms. Attacks on staff members have also increased.

The data do show progress for the reform efforts, including reductions in violence perpetrated by staff and in all types of sexual assaults. Cherie Townsend, executive director of the juvenile justice agency, acknowledged that there is room for more work, but she said that reforms are making the facilities safer.

Advocates and experts, however, say the rise in youth-on-youth and youth-on-staff assaults indicate that there is still critical work to be done.

"It's really disappointing," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates juvenile justice reform. "The implementation has not been what we hoped for."

Decreasing population

In 2007, after reports that staff at what was then the Texas Youth Commission had sexually and physically abused youths in their custody, legislators passed laws intended to improve conditions at the lockups. They gave counties incentives to keep low-level offenders in their communities, where they could be close to treatment services and support systems. Only felony offenders who had failed at other programs would serve sentences at secure state facilities. Lawmakers also prohibited the incarceration of anyone older than 18 at the facilities.

The average daily population at the secure facilities dropped from nearly 3,000 in 2007 to about 1,200 last year.

As the youth population has decreased, so has the number of assaults by staff. The number of confirmed incidents of sexual harassment or misconduct dropped from 10 in 2007 to three in 2010, the last year with data available.

At the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, where the state sends offenders with serious mental illness and disabilities, the rate of confirmed staff-on-youth physical assaults in 2007 was more than 7 in 100 youths. By 2010, that dropped to 1.5 and then to zero last year. Similar reductions were reported at other institutions.

But confirmed physical assaults among youths have increased significantly. The rate of confirmed youth-on-youth physical assaults at state secure facilities grew from 17 assaults per 100 youths in 2007 to 54 per 100 last year.

Confirmed assaults on staff by youths have climbed from a rate of 10 per 100 youths in 2007 to 37 per 100 last year.

Michele Deitch, a University of Texas professor and an expert on prison conditions, said the same reforms that have helped reduce staff-on-youth violence have created new challenges among the youths.

High-risk offenders

The changes require the agency to cope with the toughest offenders. And because lawmakers have closed eight facilities since 2007 -- because of budget cuts and population reductions -- the concentration of high-risk offenders has increased.

"It seems pretty clear that the youth population is getting harder to manage, and they're getting more assaultive," Deitch said.

The troubles are most pronounced at Giddings, home to the state's youth capital offender program, which has some of the lowest recidivism rates among its graduates. Since 2007, the rate of confirmed youth-on-youth violence at the Central Texas facility has grown 145 percent, from 33 assaults per 100 youths in 2007 to 81 per 100 last year.

Youth-on-staff assaults

Youth-on-staff assaults resulting in bodily injury have also increased at Giddings, from 18 in 2007 to 72 last year.

As staff members at Giddings attempted to quell the violence without using physical force, they increased the use of pepper spray. In 2007, staff used pepper spray on youths 74 times; it was used 216 times in 2011.

The culture at Giddings was adversely affected by last year's addition of 35 youths and of staff members from shuttered facilities, agency spokesman Jim Hurley said.

In many instances, Hurley said, Giddings staff members decided to use pepper spray instead of physical restraint to reduce the risk of injury to both staff and youths.

The agency has hired additional staff and has developed a plan to reduce pepper-spray use, he said.

"We focus on what got you here and what's going to keep you out of here," Smith said.

Changes take time

Fowler, of Appleseed, said the data suggest that the agency is struggling to change the staff's focus from punishment to rehabilitation. Agency leaders in Austin have adopted policies that encourage youths to learn new behaviors to replace violent reactions to anger and frustration. But staff at the rural facilities seem to have difficulty controlling the youths under the new rules.

"I think they've had a really hard time turning the ship," Fowler said. "I'm very pessimistic about their ability to really shift the culture."

Smith said that the transformation has been tough, but that the agency is addressing problems. "Change doesn't happen overnight," he said.

For some youths, though, improvements will come too late.

At the Granbury Juvenile Justice Center in October, Jordan Adams, a 14-year-old from Cleburne, was found unconscious in his cell with a sheet wrapped around his neck. He died six days later. In January, a Parker County teenager pleaded guilty to the juvenile equivalent of criminally negligent homicide in Adams' death.

Nearly 200 complaints and serious incidents at the Granbury facility have been logged since late 2007, including 133 suicide attempts and two escapes.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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